Julian Nemeth

Audience, Voice, and Motivation: Writing with Commitment in History and Humanities

 

Tolstoy at his desk (1870) – Nicolai Ge

As teachers, one of the questions we often ask is how can we get our students to care about the writing they are producing for our classes. Many of us devote our lives to teaching because we were guided by a passion and urgency for ideas. How can we design our assignments so that our students not only learn the material, but also feel that same sense of curiosity and commitment? How can we inspire them to understand that academic writing, far from just being a chore, can be absolutely vital? Writing in the Disciplines (WID) has provided me with some clear, practical, and evidence-based strategies to help answer these pressing pedagogical questions. In the hopes that what I learned may be of some use to others, this reflection outlines three ways my teaching has evolved since my semester as WID fellow. It focuses on three practical tools to incorporate into assignment design: audience, voice, and motivation.

I. Audience

Before my time in WID, the question of “audience” was not central to my classes. This has changed. Developing “writing situations” that require attention to a reader beyond the “teacher” has dramatically increased student engagement. While I had already had positive experiences with students reading each other’s work in peer review exercises and in online forums, I’ve now done much more to include the question of outside “audience” within the assignments themselves.  Here are just a few examples. In every Humanities BXH course, students complete a project that makes an ethical argument connected to their field of study at Dawson. I used to have students write the paper as a traditional argumentative essay.

After taking WID, I revised the assignment so that students must format their work as a “briefing memo” addressed to a real-world organization that has decision-making authority on their topics. Students conduct research to find the relevant government or corporate body that they are aiming to persuade. This shift immediately forces them to craft their analysis so as to convince an audience of experts beyond the teacher. It also underlines the need to anticipate obvious counter-arguments that such a decision-making body would ask of them. Now, instead of me just “telling” the students that their ethical analyses have real world “applied” implications, and that they must make their arguments convincing, these facts are now built into the assignment itself.

Similarly, in the Integrative Seminar, I now highlight from the start of the term that students are not writing their final projects for “me”, but for an inter-disciplinary audience of scholars who will decide whether they have a career in the field. To this end, their “proposal” assignments are modeled on Social Science and Humanities Research Council grant applications ( See Attachment 1 (Proposal)). The students write with the understanding that only effective proposals, which successfully “sell” the social and academic value of their projects—as well as their own expertise—will receive the necessary funding to complete their research. Their final projects are written with the imagined audience of a “peer review committee” at a major journal called Studies in Subjective Well-Being. Students realize that only “articles” that meet the journal’s exacting standards and that have integrated the jury’s comments on their drafts (which I have provided them earlier in the term) have a chance of being “published.”

To further encourage student engagement, unusually for an IS class, I have also incorporated a data-gathering element in the final project (either content analysis, surveys, fieldwork, or interviews). This requires students to connect their work to the academic literature, but also makes it much more about their own research. Research that they are writing for an imagined audience of a “real world” journal’s editorial board. I have even experimented with encouraging students by letting them know that the best projects will be posted online in a “student journal” that could be accessed by future scholars.

 

II. Voice

Just as explicit attention to “audience” has been central to increasing engagement, so too has WID’s insistence on the “voice” in which a student is expected to write. In the past, I had always expected students to write in their “own” voice. The possibility that there were other options had never even occurred to me! Now, I realize there is the option of writing from the standpoint of the subject under analysis. This format, uniquely, can bring an argument, world view, or ethical theory to life. In my ethics course on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for instance, students compose forum posts where they had to respond to the prompt—and to each other’s posts—in the “voice” of one the character’s in the book. By inhabiting the character’s voice, students came away with a much stronger sense of the world views and ethical stances represented in Tolstoy’s novel. Learning about the importance of voice reminded me of tests I myself had taken in college where we had the opportunity to create “dialogues” between the thinkers we were examining in class (such as Socrates and Jesus discussing the “good life” in an alternative universe). I remembered how much I enjoyed these activities and how they played an important role in helping me master key concepts.

Now, I have incorporated this approach in my own Knowledge classes at Dawson, where students have the opportunity to stage debates between authors such as Marx, De Beauvoir, and Fanon in a cotemporary Parisian café. By writing in the “voices” of these thinkers, particularly in the format of a debate, students get a taste of the “back and forth” nature of philosophical discussion and have an easier time fully understanding the authors’ points.

Building off a workshop led by history teachers Julie Johnson and Elizabeth Kirkland, I have taken this approach even further in my Western Civilization class. In this course, I have students “act out” the French Revolution by taking on the positions of one of the following groups: Jacobins, Aristocrats, Women of the Revolution, Clergy, and the colonized people of Saint-Domingue (See Attachment 2 (French Revolution)). Students conduct research on their group and develop a “script” that will then become the basis for their opening statement at a “parliamentary debate” that will determine the future of the revolution. The lively debate is extremely interactive as students’ critique each other’s positions “in character.” Some students get so involved that they created placards with slogans such as “down with nobility!” The students also reflect on their experience in the parliament and what it taught them about the French Revolution in a post-activity exercise. This interactive assignment that requires students to speak in a different voice allows them to come away with a much deeper, almost experiential, understanding of the revolution, and all the conflicting interests that it entailed. History comes to life!

Beyond considerations of audience and voice, WID has also encouraged me to think about “the big questions” that I’m aiming to have students take on in their writing. In academia, scholars typically respond to questions where there is a divide in the research. This split in the discourse motivates scholars to seek out new answers and approaches to the question. Having students take positions on contentious academic issues facilitates the development of a thesis (which is often challenging for students) and also gives them a clearer sense of what scholars actually do. In my Knowledge course on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, a central question that animated much of the term was whether the director’s films reinforced or challenged hetero-patriarchal-capitalism. This is a real debate within the academic literature on Hitchcock’s films. In both informal and formal writing assignments, students wrestled with these questions. They did so not simply to take a “pro” or “contra” position, but to wrestle with the nuances that any “answer” to such big questions must take into consideration (See Attachment 3 (Hitchcock Forum Post)).

Similarly, in my Research Methods course, students read about the fieldwork of anthropologist Alice Goffman, who has exposed the inequities of over-policing in a largely Black inner-city neighbourhood in Philadelphia. Her work has raised awareness on injustices in the criminal justice system but has also been challenged because she is white and comes from a relatively privileged background. Is this her story to tell? Students read arguments from both sides of the divide and take a position on the controversy. On a very practical level, this shows them some of the real-world ethical questions that form the lifeblood of social science research. These kinds of “conflict-based” assignments also help students understand the basic premise that a thesis must be true but arguable, and needs to be supported with pertinent evidence. They also show that scholars fiercely disagree with each other; that teachers don’t necessarily have “the” answer to all their questions; and that researchers have an obligation to understand the work of their peers before they make their own intervention on a topic. Again, the point is much less about “taking a side” in a debate than it is introducing students to the nuances and complexities involved in formulating an analysis of a complex issue.

 

III. Motivation

Finally, WID has encouraged me to design assignments where students demonstrate their mastery of course competencies while simultaneously reflecting on their personal experiences and evolution as learners. This provides an alternative way of generating student interest and motivation. In the final project for my world views course, “Psychoanalysis, Marxism, and Feminism,” for example, students write a “thesis-seeking” essay, where they examine their ideas about feminism before the class started and then analyze how the course readings, when applied to their own life stories, confirmed or challenged their previous perspective (See Attachment 4 (World Views)). The thesis only comes at the end of the work. This allows the reader to go along the same journey of intellectual discovery as the student-author. For the student, it also underline that their thesis should not be pre-determined in advance: they must complete the necessary reflection first.

In more frequent “lower-stakes” assignments, I have students write responses to course readings that both summarize key ideas but also give the option to reflect on their own lives. In a unit on Marxism, for instance, students “test” ideas about alienation by writing about their own experiences with the workplace. In a unit on psychoanalysis, students have the option to analyze their own dreams or “core issues”.  In all of my classes, I now include a “reflection/evaluation” activity at the end of the term. This gives students the chance to consider the most important skills they have developed; reflect on what they would have done differently if they could start the course again; and consider how they have changed as a person after everything they have learned in the class (See Attachment 5 (End of Term Reflection)). This kind of reflection consolidates the competencies students have acquired. It also encourages them to think beyond their grade to how all the writing and thinking they have completed for the course has impacted their evolution as a person.

 

After taking WID, I now think about how to include audience, voice, and motivation in all of the courses that I teach. The quest to have students feel the same kind of passion that motivated my own interest in scholarship continues, and probably always will, but I’m closer to achieving the goal. I hope that this reflection stimulates ideas for other teachers on the same path.

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